Our multi-part series on political fundraising in Ontario has brought in many responses, both from people who think the current system doesn’t pass the stink test and from others who have ideas to clean it up.
Increasingly, many people are concerned about how aggressively the Ontario Liberals are using their cabinet ministers to raise money. Some have alleged that if you don’t give money to the Ontario Liberal Fund, your chances of getting in to see a cabinet minister about an issue of importance to your sector are slim to none.
But parties need money to fund their operations, so what’s a better way to run this railroad?
Thankfully, the situation here is not as bad as in the United States, where in many cases politicians spend half their time fundraising. But most observers I’ve spoken to about this issue think the federal rules around political fundraising are far superior to Ontario’s.
Under Prime Minister Jean Chrétien, the federal fundraising rules changed in 2003 to prohibit corporations and unions from making political donations, and the amount that individuals could donate was lowered. Stephen LeDrew, now a host on CP24 but then the president of the Liberal Party of Canada, said the law was as “dumb as a bag of hammers” because it made his efforts to raise money immeasurably more difficult.
The federal Liberals used to rely on a few big corporations making big donations. But it was the Conservatives who first figured out that with those days gone, it would require a massive outreach to hundreds of thousands of individuals to raise the same amount of money required to fund campaigns. It took the Liberals four elections to figure out how to do that, but once they did, they excelled at it, and it helped lead them back to power in last October’s election.
A former Ontario Liberal cabinet minister sent me the following observation: “So for those who argue for the status quo [in Ontario], what happened federally is a textbook case that empowering people who can vote, not corporations and unions who cannot, actually does a better job strengthening the democratic process.”
However, it’s also true that every new solution can create a new problem. The same ex-minister also observes: “This [also] leaves open the door for political parties (or demagogues) to base even more of their policy positions on what their market research gurus tell them are not just the popular issues that drive donations, but the dog-whistle ones as well.”
Tim Lang, whose father, Otto, was a cabinet minister in Pierre Trudeau’s government, ran for the Liberals in the 2004 federal election in the former riding of Clarington–Scugog–Uxbridge. He’d like to see even lower donation limits, figuring that would encourage the parties to reach out to even more people.
“When people give or join a party or are engaged, they feel they have a stake, listen and learn and become part of the political process,” he wrote me. “This gives more importance to volunteers and getting more people involved. Money creates lazy politics. Less money is better for democracy.”
I’ve talked to plenty of academics who think we should move entirely to public financing of all campaigns. They say that’s the only way to avoid the impression that there’s a quid pro quo behind every campaign donation.
But I haven’t met too many people who are in politics who agree. And they point out the public already subsidizes campaigns to a huge extent. Political contributors receive not just a tax deduction, but also a tax credit. In essence, for every donation of $400 or less, the donor gets 75 cents back on every dollar contributed. (The tax credit level declines for amounts above $400).
Also, candidates who run for office are reimbursed a good chunk of their campaign expenditures after the election, provided they win more than 10 per cent of the vote. Although Stephen Harper’s Conservative government got rid of the per-vote subsidy, the Ontario taxpayer still rewards the political parties by giving them five cents per elector in each riding when a candidate gets at least 15 per cent of the votes.
But there are still other ways to get around the current fundraising restrictions. Section 1 of Ontario’s Election Finances Act allows an employer to permit an employee to take time off work to volunteer for a campaign, as long as the employer doesn’t pay that employee any more money. It’s a huge loophole that allows parties and their supporters to circumvent spending limits by potentially providing a big source of free labour to the campaign.
In fairness, giving money to a party doesn’t guarantee anything. The big brewers have given oodles of bucks to the Ontario Liberals over the years. It didn’t stop Premier Kathleen Wynne from busting open their virtual monopoly on sales through the Beer Store, and allowing supermarkets into that space. But those examples seem plenty rare.
At the moment, no one I’ve spoken to can imagine the Ontario Liberals changing the current rules to emulate the federal ones. The Liberals have benefited both directly from union spending and indirectly, by unions funding third-party attacks on the Progressive Conservatives, so the notion that the Liberals would prohibit public-sector unions from contributing to their campaigns seems rather far-fetched.
The last time anyone in the Liberal caucus tried to make this kind of change happened many years ago, when Greg Sorbara was president of the party. He says in his 2014 memoir, “The Battlefield of Ontario Politics,” that he threatened to quit if the party mirrored the federal rules, feeling the Liberals would be seriously disadvantaged. The caucus stood down and the issue hasn’t come up again.
But for goodness’ sake, we now live in a province where the Ontario Tire Stewardship, itself an agency of the government, felt a need to make political donations to the Ontario Liberal Party.
In what world does that make sense? Isn’t it time to make some smarter rules on political fundraising?
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